Graduation 2014: Listen Well

My job this afternoon is to convene the proceedings, set a tone, and introduce three speakers. As popular perceptions might have it, we ought to have three case discussions. Instead of three student speeches, we would have three cold-calls. Maybe a few power points. And perhaps an online simulation thrown in for good measure. Darden’s reputation in the broader world is about active, not passive, learning; about debating with your peers; and about figuring things out for yourself. All true, so far.

And Darden is also about listening really well. That’s what I’m going to ask you to do for our three speakers this afternoon. More importantly, that’s what I’m going to ask you to do for the rest of your lives.

Listening well seems to be a fading art. We’ve learned over the past few weeks about commencement speakers who were disinvited because some students didn’t want to listen to them. Yet free speech is a core value at universities. You might disagree with a speaker, but it won’t hurt you to listen. The newspapers this past week reported the retirement of Barbara Walters, the TV interviewer; she was called one of “America’s last great listeners.” Why is she the last? Aren’t people listening anymore? The likes of McKinsey & Company, Darden Dean’s Executive Fellow, Kevin Sharer, and WikiHow have weighed in on the subject of listening well. Sources like these raise a host of great tactics for good listening. For instance, show respect, establish eye contact, stop talking and be silent, encourage the speaker with body language and active listening techniques, suspend judgment, and so on. These are useful tactics, ones that you have heard about and try to practice. But I think there is more.

There is too much noise and not enough respectful silence for others to unfold their ideas. One sees countless errors such as willful distraction, arriving late, leaving early, pointless interruption, etc. Some of this might be elicited by the speakers themselves. The fact is that we are awash in noise: spam, push marketing, ephemeral stuff. And lazy listening passively digests it all.

Great listening is a process of separating the signal from noise, of discerning what resonates or disagrees with you, and of triangulating or testing what you hear with what you know. Signal, resonance, triangulation.

You can adapt great listening not only to an encounter with one person, but also to the world at large. My advice is that whatever you do next, find some quiet where you can spend part of each day to separate signal from noise. Susan Cain, in her book, Quiet, offers a powerful argument in favor of reflection, and deep listening. In effect, she says to think like an introvert. Introverts think to speak; extroverts speak to think.

Next, I urge you to sample widely across sources of information that you tap each day. Get out of your daily ‘me, ’ that echo chamber of favorite websites, Facebook pages, chat rooms and so on that simply reinforce what you already know and believe. Finally, I urge you to drill deep into what resonates.

So much of the advice for new graduates is salted with action-taking, risk-taking, go get ‘em, and so on. What these messages miss is any sensible direction for the path on which you are commencing. As the saying is, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” The prerequisite to setting any good direction is not just planning, or data analysis, or scenario testing. No, the very first step is to listen really well. Remember to focus on signal, resonance, and triangulation.

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